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Pronouns and Rainbow Circles

During an orientation session of Queer Hifazat, a programme for queer youth run by my organisation Red Dot Foundation, Deepak* said that his parents do not understand why he puts his pronouns in his email signature. He said that he explained to them what pronouns meant and why he was inserting it into his signature, but his parents did not appreciate it. He expressed his frustration at not being fully accepted or understood by his parents. Listing one’s pronouns in an email signature or against one’s name on a virtual platform is a great way to encourage dialogue on inclusion and show acceptance of another person’s choices.

Another youth, who identified as ‘asexual’, was confused when filling the application form as to whether they could apply to the Queer Hifazat programme and said that they often felt left out when programmes were specifically directed at LGBTQI youth. Our experiences of working with young people across India have shown us that there is a great need for safe platforms to discuss all forms of sexuality and gender. Many of our participants have appreciated the safe space we have created to talk about and explore their sexuality as well as their ability to be vulnerable with each other. They want to feel valued and want the space to discover who they are and who they can be.

The Queer Hifazat programme began in January 2022. We received applications from over 250 youth from 25 States across the country to be trained as Community Champions. Through this programme, they will be trained as peer first-responders, guide their friends to access relevant resources and information on gender, sexuality and topics related to it. They will also be peer educators and engage the larger community like parents, teachers, police and city officials in dialogue on the needs of the community. We hope that through these conversations we can create more spaces for further understanding, empathy, solidarity and allyship.

Indeed, our programme is needed because while decriminalising section 377 is paving the way for reforms, we are still far from ensuring that India is a safe haven for queer people. On the contrary, whilst bringing more LGBTQI folk into the open, it has also given rise to homonegativity and transnegativity. With many queer lives living in the shadow of fear of being evicted, attacked or pushed into the abyss of mental health deterioration, there is an urgent need to build a more local response from within the same community (and allies) to any stimuli of an attack.

Therefore, our recent programmes that engage with LGBTQ youth are important because they create that much needed space for exploration, questioning, dialogue and solidarity. Exploring intersectionality of queerness is also critical. One of our participants explained that even within the Hijra community, there are different gharanas and discrimination between them based on superiority and power structures. The queer community itself is so diverse that there is a need to explore the various dimensions of gender and sexuality.

Some of the many concerns our participants have expressed are the lack of safety within their homes and communities, lack of educational resources, lack of conversation spaces, inability to marry their loved ones, adopt a baby, add their partner on insurance forms, buy property jointly, and open a bank account. Access to affordable and quality housing and gender-neutral restrooms are also a concern.

By being vulnerable and sharing personal experiences in our programme and others, we can learn more not only about the challenges people face but also some of the strategies adopted to counter them. For example, Axis Bank has a recent policy #ComeAsYouAre that encourages queer folk to apply for jobs, dress in accordance with their gender/gender expression and also offers banking products for queer couples. They have been hosting monthly virtual discussions to normalise these topics, showcase role models working in their organisation, and encourage people to apply for jobs.

Whilst these are great initiatives and many queer couples have benefitted from these policies, it does take time to change mindsets. Within a week of offering joint accounts, at one of the branches a queer couple was not allowed to open their joint account. The couple took to Twitter to make their complaint, which was then quickly sent on to the Head of Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DE&I) at the bank and promptly resolved. A bank with thousands of employees can issue a policy but is dependent on its staff to implement the policy. Apparently Axis Bank had trained the employees in the said branch, but this only goes to prove that despite an intentional approach, change in society is a long and slow process. Most people are still subject to unconscious bias, do not know the right vocabulary to use and often hurt sentiments of the community with their insensitivity. Policies need to be accompanied with rigorous trainings and workshops for employees to understand and challenge their unconscious biases and truly be allies. This would ensure that policies can be seamlessly implemented with minimal or no incidents like this particular one.

Socio-cultural conditioning can only change with more education, conversations and sharing of experiences. There also needs to be inter-generational dialogue as these conversations have only picked up momentum recently. Like Deepak’s parents and the Axis Bank staff, there are many who are now being introduced to gender pronouns and the broader discussion on sexuality. We, ourselves, learn as we go along. As we meet more people and listen to their stories, we develop a greater appreciation of human diversity and a deeper connection with each person.

*Name changed

Cover Image: Photo by Paola Galimberti on Unsplash  

Article written by:

Elsa Marie D’Silva (www.elsamariedsilva.com) is Founder & CEO of Safecity (www.safecity.in) that crowdmaps sexual harassment in public spaces. She is a 2015 Aspen New Voices Fellow and recipient of the 2017 Vital Voices Global Leadership Award